Kumārajīva’s Remarkable Contribution to Sarvāstivāda and Mahāyāna Tradition in Medieval Chinese Buddhism

Speech by 


The transmission of Buddhism first reached China from India roughly 2,000 years ago during the Han Dynasty. Historically, it was during the time of the Emperor Ming (58-75)[1]. The transmission of Buddhism to China has been considered as one of the major factors for the development of the literature, religion, philosophy, arts and social-construction of the Chinese Society. At this point, I will discuss why the Han Chinese could accept Buddhism when they already had advanced religions such as Confucianism and Taoism. The two earliest form of Buddhism to China; namely, Sarvāstivāda and Mahāyāna tradition, introduced through the distinguished rulers, scholars and pilgrimages from India and Central Asia. Kumārajīva (343–413) is one of the foreign masters from Central Asia and who has done the remarkable development of Buddhism in Medieval Chinese Buddhism in the 5th century C.E.

It is strongly believed that Kumārajīva made a remarkable contribution for Sarvāstivāda and Mahāyāna doctrines as well. Kumārajīva played an important role for Mahāyāna as well as being a strong opponent of Hīnayāna. However, this assumption is quite controversial. Therefore, I should discuss the background of Chinese Buddhism prior to Kumārajīva’s arrival in Chang-an, his biography, prolific translation works; his works for the foundation of Madhyamaka in Medieval Chinese Buddhism.

In this paper, I will also put forward the argument that Kumārajīva was an advocator of Mahāyāna, especially for showing the new religious path to Mahāyāna Buddhism in China and being the founder of the Chinese Madhyamaka School (San-lun) and prolific translations of Mahāyāna Sūtras and Śāstras. I will consider the influence of Sarvāstivādin thought on Kumārajīva’s thought and his Sarvāstivādin collaborators in translation works and his contribution to Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma and Vinaya. To conclude, I will say though Kumārajīva usually was a supporter of Mahāyāna but also contributed to Hīnayāna Buddhism in Medieval Chinese Buddhism throughout his life and works.

2. The Adoption of Buddhism in the Chinese Han Dynasty

The Emperor Wu of Han dynasty (202BC-220AD) had created a pathway from China to central Asia [2] and contact with many peoples whose had previously been exposed only to cultural influences from India. Though the Han Chinese already had advanced religions such as Confucianism and Daoism, they could accept Buddhism. The traditional Chinese religions had accepted Buddhism because Buddhism focuses on ethical doctrine, social harmony, meditation etc. The main goal of Confucianism is the accomplishment of inner harmony with nature. Daoism shares similar principles with Confucianism. The main pattern of Confucianism and the doctrine of Daoism based on ethics and moral principles in order to improve the own behavior. Later Daoism influenced with Buddhist thoughts such as meditation and non-violence. These were particularly interested in the systematic and detailed Buddhist meditation techniques, including visualizations of the Buddha. They adopted them as supplements to the more obscure and elusive Daoistic techniques[3]. Through the practice of Buddhists and an inner affinity with the ancient Chinese thought of Daoism and Confucianism, Buddhist philosophy could persistently gain the trust from all classes of Chinese people. As an important influence of Buddhist practice, meditation has been promoted from India and Central Asia together with their sacred images and books.

3. Historical Background of Early Chinese Buddhism

The transmission of Buddhism from India to China was with its complete scriptural canon, doctrines, moralities, cultures and its own ancient culture. It was one of the most significant events in the history of Chinese Buddhism. It was launched through the Silk Road and was probably introduced by the Silk Road traders and Buddhist Monks during the Later Han dynasty in the 1st century C.E. From the 1st century, the Indian Buddhist transplantations into china flourished in the fourth century through hundreds of translated series of Buddhist canon from Indic and Central Asian languages into Chinese. Through the remarkable activities of monks and their abilities to work, Buddhist philosophy with the ancient Chinese thought of Taoism and Confucianism could gradually gain the trust of Chinese people.

It is quite certain that the earliest form of Chinese Buddhism was introduced to China; namely, Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna through the distinguished rulers, scholars and pilgrimages from India and Central Asia. It is considered that translational activities started from first phase of Chinese Buddhism (from the middle of the second century to the first decade of the third century). The beginning of this period, two foreign translators – Shigao and Lokakṣema arrived at Luoyang. Shigao (around 148 CE) who translated Hīnayāna literature and Lokakṣema translated Mahāyāna literature.[4] Buddhist scholars in china translated both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna texts that existed side by side as they did in India. The use of Taoist terms for Buddhist beliefs and practices not only helped in the difficulty of translation but also brought Buddhist scriptures closer to the Chinese people. However, the traditional word and thought is not sufficient to understand Buddhist doctrines. Therefore, many Chinese Buddhists generation misunderstood some important Buddhist doctrines. The doctrines of Laozi and Zuangzi used as a bridge for understanding Chinese and Buddhist philosophies. Lokakṣema (Between 168 and 188) came to China to translate some important texts of Mahāyāna literature.[5] During the second half of the third century, Dharmarakṣa was considered as the greatest Buddhist translator prior to Kumārajīva and translated several Mahāyāna Sūtras.[6]

The first period of Chinese Buddhism came to an end with two well-known Chinese Buddhist monks, Daoan (312-385) and Huiyuan (337- 417). Daoan rejected the syncretistic method of Geyi and exegetical strategy that mixed mundane literature and Buddhist scriptures. Huiyuan combined Buddhist and Taoist elements in meditational practice. Then, the arrival of Kumārajīva developed the second period of Chinese Buddhism. Kumārajīva founded and headed a well translation institute; numerous Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna works were provided into Chinese within eight years.

4. Kumārajīva’s Biography

Kumārajīva (343–413 or 350–409) he was recognized as a famous translator into Chinese of many important and influential Mahāyāna Buddhist texts and considered as the founder of the Sanlun (Three treatise i. e. Madhyamaka) School in China. He was also known as giver of knowledge with unchallenged authority and as an advocator of Mahāyāna teachings and an opponent of Hīnayāna. Kumārajīva was born in the Central Asian royal family of Kuchā. His father was an immigrant Indian Brahman and his mother a Kuchean princess. Kumārajīva also entered into monastic life as a novice at the age of seven when his mother left home to become a nun.[7] He studied two years the Āgamas and Abhidharma texts of Hīnayāna. Then his mother took him to Kashmir where he learnt the Dirghāgama, the Madhyamāgama and the Kṣudraka under the master Bandhudatta for three years. On the way going to Kuchā, his mother let him study the Jñānaprasthāna Śāstra, He received full ordination in the royal palace at age twenty and studied the Vinaya of the Sarvāstivāda School with master Vimalākṣa. The next twenty years, he focused on Mahāyāna sūtras and Śāstras, especially the three Śāstras of Nāgārjuna and Āryadeva. As an accomplished monk, his fame reached China in 379 CE through a report of a Chinese Buddhist monk named Sengjun.[8] Emperor Fujian of the Former Qin Dynasty dispatched his general Luguang with an army in order to conquer Kuchā and bring Kumārajīva to Qin capital of Chang-an.[9] The Yao family of Later Qin had overthrown Fu Jian, Lu Guang kept Kumārajīva in Kuchā for seventeen years. Finally the armies of Emperor Yao succeeded in defeating the Lu family, and brought Kumārajīva to Chang-an in 401 CE. From 401 to 413, Kumārajīva had translated many Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna texts together with his translation bureau.[10] In total, The Chu sanzang ji ji (early sixth century) attributes thirty-five works in 294 fascicles to Kumārajīva.[11] He died in 409 or 413 CE at the age of seventy.[12]

5. Kumārajīva’s Principles of Translation

Kumārajīva undertook the translation of Buddhist literature in a magnificent style to bring the original meanings. Kumārajīva expressed a host of fundamental Buddhist techniques with his liberal translation from Sanskrit into Chinese due to the great difference between the literary styles of both languages. According to Wang Wenyan, Kumārajīva’s translation principles can be summarized into three main points;[13]

1. Emphasis on polished/refined language,
2. Use of omissions & additions and
3. Correcting terms

Kumārajīva undoubtedly made the most outstanding quality of the translations as the smooth and natural quality of the translations. His foremost contribution to the process of refining the Buddhist special terms which were certain unclear terms; was for the clear explanation of specific words without any changes, omissions and additions to preserve their the original meanings. Kumārajīva’s perfect knowledge of both the Sanskrit and Chinese languages and his deep penetration into the vast ocean of Buddhist Philosophy and literature interpreted the Sanskrit scriptures into Chinese.

Thirty-five works in 294 fascicles which included the well-known twenty-three titles were attributed to Kumārajīva. His prolific translations became the central texts for Chinese Buddhism i.e. the Vinaya and dhyāna sūtras, the Satyasiddhi Śāstra, a Bahuśrutīya treatise by Harivarman, the Śūnyavādin sūtras (especially the Prajñāpāramitā class), and the Madhyamaka treatises.[14] In short, through well-known influence in Medieval Chinese Buddhism, activities of Kumārajīva showed in the second period of Chinese translations (fifth and sixth centuries).[15] Kumārajīva and his translation teams are famous for their florid and elegant style.

6. Kumārajīva’s Contribution to Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna Tradition in Medieval Chinese Buddhism

According to Tsukamoto, prior to Kumārajīva’s arrival in Chang-an, Chinese Buddhist did not see the resemblances and oppositions between the “Mahāyāna (Great Vehicle)” and “Hīnayāna (Lesser Vehicle)”.[16] Then with the arrival of Kumārajīva, Chinese Buddhists came to understand plainly these two schools were two groups of doctrines and they opposed and attacked each other.[17] Therefore, Scholars on medieval Chinese Buddhism used to classify foreign monks are either Hīnayānists or Mahāyānists.[18] Buddhist Scholars have considered that Kumārajīva played an important role for Mahāyāna as well as being a strong antagonist of Hīnayāna. However, this assumption is quite controversial because he had remarkable contribution to Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna tradition in Medieval Chinese Buddhism as well.

It is strongly believed that Kumārajīva was an advocator of Mahāyāna only, especially for showing the new religious path to Mahāyāna Buddhism in China and his works for the foundation of the Chinese Madhyamaka School and for his prolific translation of Mahāyāna Sūtras and Śāstras. Kumārajīva also played remarkable contribution to Hīnayāna tradition through the influence of Sarvāstivādin thought on Kumārajīva’s thought and especially, meditation texts included in the Āgamas of the Sarvāstivādin tradition and his contribution to Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma and Vinaya. Therefore, Kumārajīva had a remarkable contribution to both Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna in Medieval Chinese Buddhism.

6.1. Kumārajīva’s Contribution to Medieval Chinese Mahāyāna Buddhism

6.1.1. Kumārajīva as the Founder of Madhyamaka[19] School in China

Madhyamaka School started with the writings of Nāgārjuna in the 2nd century CE in India and became known in China through Kumārajīva who translated both Nāgārjuna’s works and other influential Buddhist Sūtras in Medieval Chinese Buddhism. Under the leadership of Kumārajīva, Chinese type of Prajñāpāramitā became systematized in the line Nāgārjuna-Kumārajīva in the Sui Periods (581-618) and shown its ultimate fruit with the foundation of the school of Chinese Madhyamaka (San-lun i.e. three treatises) in the Medieval Chinese Period. The Later Qin King requested Kumārajīva to translate the Mahāyāna Sūtras at the very first. He also retranslated the some translational works of Dharmarakṣa and Lokakṣema to extent their understanding of the Mahāyāna doctrine.

Prior to arrival of Kumārajīva in China, the metaphysical theories of Dark learning or Non-being of Laozi are confused the Chinese Buddhists in the sense that they took these doctrines as similar to the doctrinal emptiness of the Prajñāpāramitā.[20] The translation of Kumārajīva of the Prajñāpāramitā literatures, Nāgārjuna’s, and Āriyadeva’s doctrine of emptiness and middle path could be rectified properly.[21] Kumārajīva established the Prajñāpāramitā discipline which extended from Nāgārjuna to him.[22] Kumārajīva set the Mahāyāna direction in this translation to develop Chinese Buddhism by removing the misunderstanding of Chinese in the line with the Indian Mahāyāna doctrines. He propagated far and wide Madhyamaka School with the clarification of Mahāyāna in terms of the philosophy of middle way. Therefore, Kumārajīva was considered as the founder of the Sanlun School (Madhyamaka) in China.

6.1.2. His disciple’s request of translation the Meditation texts

Meditation was an important aspect of monastic practice and lay society people respected it as a tool for self-control and development in the early fifth century in China. The thousands of students followed Kumārajīva to study it after his arrival in Chan-an.[23] He himself was not expert in meditation but promoted it among his numerous Chinese disciples. With the request of Sengrui, Kumārajīva translated all the meditation texts i.e. Sūtra of Samādhi of Sitting in Meditation which is also called the Bodhisattvadhyāna, the Essential Explanation of The Method of Dhyāna, Sūtra of The Secret Essentials of Meditation. In his translations, Kumārajīva introduced some Mahāyāna ideas such as Prajñāpāramitā, Bodhisattva and Śūnyatā.

6.2. Kumārajīva’s Contribution to Sarvāstivāda Tradition in Medieval Chinese Buddhism

6.2.1. The Great Influence of Sarvāstivādin Thoughts

We can understand that Kumārajīva studies the Āgamas texts i.e. the Dirghāgama, the Madhyamāgama and the Kṣudraka; and Abhidharma i.e. the Jñānaprasthāna Śāstra, the Vinaya of the Sarvāstivāda school, and the Mahāyāna sūtras and Śāstras. The great influences of Sarvāstivādin thoughts were on Kumārajīva’s thought especially in his meditation texts which included in the Āgamas of the Sarvāstivādin tradition. His first Meditation text[24] “Sūtra of Samādhi of Sitting in Meditation” translated with the requested of his disciple, which based on the five types of Contemplation Techniques such as —

1. Contemplation on impurities (aśubha),
2. Contemplation on loving-kindness (maitrī),
3. Contemplation on dependent arising (pratītyasamutpāda),
4. Contemplation on the breath (ānāpānasmṛti), and
5. Contemplation on the body of the Buddha (buddhānusmṛti).

In addition, In the Abhidharmakośabhaṣya (VI9), Contemplation on the impurities (aśubha) and Contemplation on the Breath (ānāpāsmṛti) are said to be as the entrances to the bhāvanā. The

Kumārajīva’s translation of Sūtra of Samādhi of sitting in Meditation, Contemplation on the body of the Buddha (buddhānusmṛti) is replaced with elements (dhātu). [25]

The Essential Explanation of The Method of Dhyāna text was translated by Kumārajīva during the Yao Qin Dynasty (394-416) at Chan-an. This text focuses on the contemplation of impurity. This text carries many elements of Early Buddhist thoughts of Hīnayāna i.e. self-liberation and added further elements of Bodhisattva ideal of Mahāyāna tradition i.e. enlightening others.[26] This text has relation with the other his meditation texts such as Buddhānusmṛti Dhyāna.

Though Kumārajīva had greatly influenced of Sarvāstivādin thoughts and adapted the Sarvāstivādin thoughts. It is clear that Kumārajīva developed the doctrinal techniques of Mahāyāna in Medieval Chinese Buddhism through the influences of Sarvāstivāda techniques as new Mahāyānist techniques. However, his thoughts and works still had many foot prints of the Sarvāstivādin trace.

6.2.2. Central Asian Buddhist Community

Kumārajīva grew up in a community dominated by Hīnayāna Buddhism, especially that of the Sarvāstivāda. The dominance of Sarvāstivāda doctrine enduringly persisted during the life period of Kumārajīva, especially Kuchā in which the Hīnayāna was successful but at that period, Khotan was a stronghold of Mahāyāna school.[27] Kumārajīva studied the Canon of Sarvāstivāda tradition under the instruction of Bandhudatta (Pantoudaduo). Kumārajīva served his knowledge for Sarvāstivādin Philosophy during his studies. In medieval Chinese Buddhism, Kumārajīva was the lone who was converted from Hīnayāna to Mahāyāna tradition.[28] Since his former masters and other Central Asian Communities came to join with Kumārajīva in Chang-an, it presented appearing more credible and the complex relationship between Kumārajīva and the monastic establishment in Central Asia.

6.2.3. His Sarvāstivādin Co-operators in translation works

According to Kumārajīva’s biography, it is clear that Kumārajīva had the closest relationship with the Sarvāstivādins in Kāśmīr. Because of his relationship with Sarvāstivādins in Kāśmīr, Kumārajīva got help from his Sarvāstivādins collaborators in this translational works. Especially, at the end of his final year in Chang-an, several Sarvāstivādins collaborated with him on various translation projects, including Puṇyatāra Furuodouluo, Dharmaruci and so on.[29]

6.2.4. His competition with Buddhabhadra

Though Kumārajīva had more than thousand students, none considered him as a master because he broke the rules.[30] After the arrival of Buddhabhadra in Chang-an, Kumārajīva influenced on the contemporary Chinese Buddhist community.[31] Since Buddhabhadra’s arrival, Kumārajīva was widely publicized for his flagrant disregard for the monastic codes. Buddhabhadra got the empathy of Chinese Buddhist because of Kumārajīva’s monastic practice and meditation master. However, due to Kumārajīva‘s reputation, Buddhabhadra eventually was expelled out of Chang-an, but warmly received by the Chinese Buddhist community in the South. Buddhabhadra converted to Mahāyāna from Hīnayāna. From that time, both of them were contributed to Chinese Buddhism. It is scholarly believed that Kumārajīva influenced in his monastic code and meditation techniques from his master.

6.2.5. His Contribution to Sarvāstivāda

Kumārajīva is known as an advocator of Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka tradition and the main target of criticism in the Madhyamaka tradition is about the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma. However, the Madhyamaka texts i.e. “Tattvasiddhi”[32] , the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma positions were always not clearly indicated in this text. As a result, it is understandable that Kumārajīva would teach for his students to study in a critical way and to know and understand the Abhidharma theories without agreeing with them. After the death of Kumārajīva, his student, Sengdao wrote commentary on the Tattvasiddhi. It came to be widely acknowledged as a “Hīnayāna” text and its study became less popular when the most Buddhists in China identified as “Mahāyānists” after the works of Zizang (549-623) from Madhyamaka perspective.[33] However, it is understandable that Kumārajīva taught the “Tattvasiddhi” text as with the explanatory of Abhidharma.

The text “Mahāprājñāpāramitopadeśa” is most probable composed by Kumārajīva in 402-406 AD. He discusses about the Abhidharmic traditions in two places. Kumārajīva used in this translation of this text the existing Chinese Terminology i.e. Grantha as Skandhaka.[34] Kumārajīva clearly says the three kinds of Abhidharma. First and Second Abhidharma are as the way or gate of sthāvirīya, especially, of the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma. Kumārajīva explained one more way of Abhidharma as the gate of emptiness.[35] However, I will consider Kumārajīva’s works of Abhidharma which were brought the remarkable contribution to Sarvāstivāda tradition.

6.2.6. The Establishment of Monastic Code in China:

Kumārajīva is an important figure for the establishment of monastic code in Medieval Chinese Buddhism. It is quite certain that Vinaya texts were not translated even until the early fifth century in Chinese Buddhism. Because of that, the Chinese Saṇgha community was troubled in its organization and development. It came to be available in Chinese Buddhism by the efforts of Kumārajīva. He translated the Vinaya of Mūlasarvāstivāda in the recitations (k.810), the Sarvāstivādaprātinikṣa Sūtra (T.1436), Mahāyanāvinayabrahmasāla Sūtra (T.1484) and many other works on Vinaya (K.527, 539), Buddha’s Dispensation Legacy Sūtra (K.456) which are regularly recited in Chinese Monasteries.[36] He contributed to study of Vinaya in China and to establish a separate Vinaya school. These great contributions of Kumārajīva to Medieval Chinese Buddhism are to establish the Monastic rule and regulation in order to bring the aim of Buddhist cultivation in Chinese Buddhism.

7. Conclusion

Though Kumārajīva was only exclusion as convert from Hīnayāna to Mahāyāna, he would greatly be influenced by the social and religious conditions of the Sarvāstivādin communities. According to Huijao, he assumes that Kumārajīva was an advocator of Mahāyāna and an antagonist of Hīnayāna. Many Buddhist scholars misinterpreted through his prediction. As a result, modern scholars repeatedly emphasized that Chinese Buddhists understood the fundamental differences between the Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna teachings and started to develop the clear sense of Mahāyāna doctrines.

According to Tsukamoto, the doctrine of emptiness of Nāgārjuna and Āryadeva was to attack the Abhidharma of Hīnayāna as to bring the true understanding of Buddha’s doctrine and to propagate the Mahāyāna. Many other Buddhist scholars also consider that Kumārajīva’s influence was endued not to his translations but to his oral explanations and winning personality. Many other Buddhist scholars applied Kumārajīva’s translation to separate the Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna doctrines. Therefore, Kumārajīva was also an advocate for both Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna doctrines and their doctrines provided into Chinese under the leadership of Kumārajīva.

Kumārajīva mostly influenced in the meditation techniques of Hīnayāna into Second period of Chinese Buddhism. He introduced Chan teaching as mode of Mahāyāna practice. Kumārajīva’s translation of all meditation texts were considered as Hīnayāna texts,[37] and few differences such as contemplation of the Buddha, the remembrance of the Buddha the Middle Way of the Madhyamaka, the emptiness of Prajñāpāramitā, and so on.

In conclusion, I want to say that Kumārajīva had remarkable contribution in medieval Chinese Buddhism, especially for his prolific meditation translation. I strongly believe that Kumārajīva was an advocate of both Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna and his remarkable contribution to Sarvāstivāda and Mahāyāna tradition in Chinese Medieval Buddhism.



Additional Bibliography

  • Akira, Hirakawa, A History of Indian Buddhism: from Sakyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. Translated and edited by Paul Groner. USA: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.
  • Daňková, Zuzana, Kumārajīva the Translator: His Place in the History of Translating Buddhist Scriptures into Chinese, (Univerzita Karlova v Praze: Vedoucí práce, 2006).
  • Enichi, Ocho, The Beginnings of Buddhist Tenet Classification in China.” Translated by Robert F. Rhodes, The Eastern Buddhist 4, no. 2 (1981).
  • Fung, Yu-Lan, A short history of Chinese Philosophy (Collier Macmillan Publisher, London 1966).
  • Har Dayal, The Bodhisattva doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit literature (New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass, 1932)
  • Kumar, Yukteshwar, A History of Sino-Indian Relations: 1st century AD to 7th century AD (New Delhi, India: APH Publication Corporation, 2005), 107.
  • Lu, Yang, Narrative and Historicity in the Buddhist Biographies of Early Medieval China: The Case of Kumārajīva, (Asia Major, Third Series 17.2, 2004)
  • Min Bahadur Shakya, The life of Nepalese Buddhist Master Buddhabhadra (Kathmandu, Nepal: China Study Center, 2009).
  • Todaro, Dale, “Kumārajīva.” Encyclopedia of Religion. 2nd ed. Vol. 8. Edited by, Mircea Eliade. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.
  • The Sutra on the Concentration of Sitting Meditation, translated by Nobuyoshi Yamabe and Fumihiko Sueki (Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2009).
  • Tsukamoto, Zenryu, A History of Early Chinese Buddhism: from its introduction to the Death of Hui-yuan, vol 1. Translated by Leon Hurvitz. Tokyo, Japan: Kodansha International, Ltd., 1985.
  • Stephan P, Bumbacher, “Early Buddhism in China: Daoist reactions.” The Spread of Buddhism, Ann Heirman and Stephan P. Bumbacher eds. (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2007).
  • Qian Lin, Mind in Dispute: The Section on the Mind in Harivarman’s Tattvasiddhi, (University of Washington: Phd. 2015).
  • Willemen, Charles, “Kumārajīva’s ‘Explanatory Discourse’ about Abhidharmic Literature” (Journal of the International College for Postgraduate Buddhist Studies 12, 2008).


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